RIF education brainstorm draws diverse perspectives

LATOYA WATTS, foreground, takes part in a Q&A discussion during the Rhode Island Foundation’s “Make it Happen: World Class Public Education for RI” brainstorming session on Saturday in Providence. PBN PHOTO/MIKE SKORSKI

PROVIDENCE – Educational equity. Universal pre-K. Transportation, teacher benefits and even amending the Rhode Island Constitution.

Ideas big and small filled the room, shared in conversation and transcribed in loopy scrawl on giant poster boards that lined the walls, as more than 300 people gathered at the Rhode Island Convention Center on Saturday to talk education. The event, organized by the Rhode Island Foundation’s Long-Term Education Planning Committee, gave the public a chance to weigh in on the committee’s long-term plan to improve the state’s public schools.

“The vision that we have proposed … is that Rhode Island’s world-class public education system prepares students to succeed in life and in the community,” said Neil D. Steinberg, foundation CEO and president.

How to get there? The crowd gathered for the “Make it Happen: World Class Public Education for RI” session offered no shortage of ideas and recommendations.

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“Over and over, we heard that our education system should address life as it actually is,” said Maria DeCarvalho, co-director of the organizational consulting firm Minds at Work and a facilitator for the event. “For students who have been traumatized … for teachers who both have very stressful work and would like to have more autonomy about choosing the course of their professional developments, for parents who work two jobs and sometimes don’t speak English.”

Getting political support for needed changes is just as important, according to Peter Muhitch, a junior at Exeter-West Greenwich High School who came to the event representing his school.

For Barbara Mullen, a member of the R.I. State Board of Education and a professional development trainer, it’s all about using data to highlight inequity and drive improvement.
Meanwhile, Rilwan Feyisitan, executive director of the anti-poverty nonprofit Community Action Partnership of Providence, emphasized the importance of diversifying the state’s teachers to better serve its diverse students.

Creating a single plan from the 300-plus individual priorities and perspectives won’t be easy, Steinberg admitted. Luckily, the rapid-fire stream of ideas is far from the first step in the foundation’s commitment to helping shape a long-term education plan.

The event caps off a year-long effort by the Long-Term Education Planning Committee to develop the framework for a plan. The 26-person committee includes Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, the state’s chair of the board of education, labor leaders, representatives from public and charter schools, business leaders and nonprofits.

The committee’s formation came on the heels of the release of the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System results, which showed Rhode Island students significantly lagging their Massachusetts counterparts in standardized testing in English and math.

But as many emphasized on Saturday, the plan is about more than scores, or besting the state’s neighbors. It’s about developing a vision that propels the state education system forward and improving the experience for the students.

“We will lose the battle if we are entangled in adult politics,” said Infante-Green. “If what we do does not benefit those students, we have failed.”

The education committee will release a report of its findings and recommendations, including the public input from Saturday, by January, according to Steinberg.

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